"Jillian, don't hold your nose like that," my mother scolded, nudging me. "It's rude."
I was standing next to my mom at the cheese counter at Kaputsa's--the fanciest grocery store in all of New York City's Upper West Side--and I felt a little icky.
"But it smells," I complained.
"This is Kaputsa's," she hissed. "A very famous grocery store! Their cheese does not smell."
I snorted. Some famous grocery store. They didn't even sell normal food here--only aisles and aisles of creepy, blobby, hairy vegetables that looked more like science experiments than things you could eat. I wanted to go home to Pennsylvania, to a normal grocery store, with normal food in it.
"This is the best cheese counter in the city," my mother murmured as we waited our turn. She pointed to an oozy pile in the glass case. "Those cheeses there are the exotic cheeses. They will be perfect for the party tonight."
She was making a huge deal out of this party she and my new stepfather, Michael, were throwing. It was her first big New York party, she'd explained, and she wanted to do it up right. She was never this way when we lived in Pennsylvania, or when she was with my dad, who died of cancer two and a half years before. I slumped my shoulders down even farther. I wished I was a puddle on the floor so someone at Kaputsa's could come and mop me up.
"Next!" roared a voice. Behind the foul-smelling cheese counter stood a man who honestly looked like he should have been in the circus. He was very tall, like maybe he was on stilts, except he wasn't, and he had a pitted face and a giant handlebar mustache. His eyes were small and beady, and his mouth curled down in a frown. He wore a purple and white striped Kaputsa's apron and hat; in his left hand he was jangling a bunch of keys, and in his right hand he held a long, thin knife, like some really evil jailkeeper.
"Yikes," I said. "They let that scary guy work here?"
"Shhh," my mother said to me. "Try to behave."
It was my second day in New York City. My mom and I had just moved there, to a really dark and spooky building called the Dakota, on Seventy-second Street. It had all seemed like a blur. One minute, I was sitting on my blue bedspread in Pennsylvania, doodling a T-shirt design for this boy I liked, thinking that maybe he liked me, too. Next minute, my mom's in a wedding gown, and I'm in an itchy lime green lacy bridesmaid dress, allergic to the flowers and sneezing like crazy.
Michael, my brand-new stepfather, owned a huge publishing company in New York, so he couldn't just leave it behind to move to Pennsylvania. He made the move easier for my mom by setting her up with a really great new editor job at Savvy, one of his coolest magazines. She was happy, but I had to leave my bedroom and all my friends in Pennsylvania behind. It really stank, and not just because of all the cheese.
"Things will get better," my mom had assured me. "New York just takes some getting used to." But how would she know? She'd only been here for a day too!
"Should I get Coach Farm triple cream, or Talegio, or both?" my mother murmured.
I guess you could say it was all Michael's fault that we were there. After my dad died, my mother dated a couple of other guys, but Michael was different. My only opinion of him was that he had really large fleshy ears. And, oh yeah, he had a funny accent from somewhere. Later, my mother told me it was Australia.
I squirmed around, leaning against the Kaputsa's counter, missing things. I missed my friends and the boy, Dan Connelly, I had a crush on. I even missed Harry, the obnoxious nine-year-old who lived next door and once came after me, blindfolded, carrying his mom's garden hoe. The night before, as I listened to the traffic whoosh down Central Park West, six stories below me, I'd wished I could stick my tongue out at Harry just one more time.
And I missed my father more than ever. He used to make me pancakes, take me sledding, and draw cartoons of my mom and me. I wondered if my mom even thought about him anymore.
"Stop wasting my time! What do you want?" the cheese seller shouted, waving the knife. I noticed that his little purple and white nametag said jacques. He took the key chain he was jangling and placed it behind the counter.
"Oh, well, I'm not sure," my mother said, her hand on her cheek. "I'm having a dinner party tonight, and I was thinking the Manchego, but--"
"Manchego would be terrible for a dinner party!" Jacques roared. "Get Brie! Brie is the best! Only Brie!"
This guy needed to chill out. He had an accent. French, maybe. I bet he ate a lot of cheese.
"Brie, I'm telling you!" Jacques bossed my mother.
"But I don't know if everyone likes Brie . . . ," my mother said.
Jacques gave an impatient little sigh.
I decided to take a look around. I saw a tall spindly woman wearing black leggings and a black T-shirt, peering into a nearby pickle barrel. She was leaning so far over that her head was almost completely inside. "Emily, hold the basket," the woman squealed. "I'm searching for just the right pickle."
A girl, about my age--eleven, going into sixth grade--took the woman's shopping basket. She wore a bright blue boa draped around her shoulders and cool blue Puma sneakers on her feet. She kept flinging the end of the boa around so that it brushed against the cheese display and the olive barrels. She looked about as miserable as I was. She caught my gaze and rolled her eyes at her mom's back. Then she pointed at a hunk of wrapped cheese and stuck out her tongue and pinched her nose.
I giggled. She seemed nice and fun. I needed to make friends in New York. I might as well start now.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Secret Apartment by Natalie Fast. Copyright © 2005 by Natalie Fast. Excerpted by permission of Yearling, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.